Editorial Feature

Nature-Inspired Architecture: A Biophilic Approach

Nature has been related to architecture since historical times; the legendary Hanging Garden of Babylon, positioned alongside a water source and lined with several kinds of plants in terraced gardens, is a magnificent example. Such constructions form the basis of biophilic design today, which is a sort of environmental perspective imbibing land, climate, and water considerations into urban planning.1

Nature-Inspired Architecture: A Biophilic Approach

Image Credit: Hitdelight/Shutterstock.com

In the early 21st century, biophilic designs emerged as a central part of restorative environmental design, striving to reconstruct synergism between nature and humankind in the built world. Biophilic designs enable low environmental impact constructions and enrich the human mind, body, and spirit by fostering positive natural experiences.2 This article explores biophilic design principles, their advantages to the environment and humans, and related challenges.

Principles of Biophilic Design

Biophilic design is generally defined as a conscious endeavor to accomplish contact with natural systems in the modern built milieu, improving man's physical and mental well-being and productivity. It helps bridge the problematic split between humans and nature and is characterized as natural elements integrated into buildings.1

The innate biological affinity of humans for nature is the principle behind biophilic design. The restorative benefits of nature and preferential landscapes further strengthened this affinity. Accordingly, organic (naturalistic) and vernacular (place-based) are the two basic dimensions of biophilic design. While the former uses natural shapes and forms in buildings and landscapes, the latter fosters a geographical connection between culture, history, and ecology.2

Various frameworks have been developed to assist designers in incorporating biophilia into the built environment using natural features such as ornamentation, biomaterials, and biomorphic configurations. Thus, biophilic cities provide abundant natural experiences and are biodiverse and multisensory with rich outdoor features.2

Biophilic constructions embrace both blue (marine and aquatic) and green (terrestrial) environments, with component sizes ranging from microscopic to celestial. The residents in such buildings are engaged with nature with profound curiosity, nurturing other forms of life, even those beyond their borders.2

Biophilic design ethically strives for an equitable distribution of natural experiences and enhancing nature conservation efforts. It conceives social (e.g., creating human-nature interaction opportunities), sustainable (e.g., ecological corridors), and economic (e.g., pedestrianization) regeneration of the built environment through the development of human communities.2

Advantages of Biophilic Architecture

The building sector accounts for about 40 % of energy consumption and the related carbon dioxide emissions. Buildings also significantly impact human health and well-being, as we spend nearly 90 % of our time indoors. Reconnecting with nature through biophilic design is advantageous in both of these aspects.1

Biophilic design offers several pathways to ensure sustainability in architecture. For instance, using indigenous natural materials reduces construction costs and enables affordable housing. Additionally, it promotes responsible consumption through material recycling. Other direct advantages of biophilic design include mitigating the urban heat island effect, improving biodiversity by providing habitat for plants and animals, and enhancing air quality by reducing pollution.1

Cities worldwide are experiencing climate change impacts, including extreme heatwaves, flooding, and droughts. Biophilic design can make our cities resilient by enabling buffering ecosystem services such as water cleansing, flood mitigation, and preventing heat stress. Natural wetland systems and restored urban spaces with living walls and green roofs improve the microclimate in a region, mitigating high temperatures and preventing flooding.2

In indoor environments, biophilic design helps optimize thermal comfort for residents and utilizes non-toxic substances, promoting good health and well-being. It also enables urban farming for food production and offers publicly accessible green or blue spaces, thereby reducing societal inequalities.1

Exposure to nature has demonstrated positive associations with human health, including higher levels of physical activity and lower levels of cardiovascular diseases, obesity, hypertension, and diabetes. In the long term, biophilic spaces counter depression, anxiety, and chronic diseases in humans. This is because a psychological/emotional connection with nature positively influences both hedonic (happiness) and eudemonic (worthwhile life) well-being.2

Challenges and Limitations

Despite the enormous benefits of connecting with nature through biophilic design, several challenges hinder their ready adoption in modern constructions. Firstly, incorporating nature with architecture requires meticulous planning and maintenance, as plants can give rise to excessive humidity, insects, odors, and structural problems. Artificial green designs employed to replace quickly dying real plants are also energy-intensive.1

The choice of elements in a biophilic design depends on people’s perception of ‘natural,’ with some valuing such elements while others disregard them as inferior or inauthentic.2 In addition, many biophilic design concepts are criticized as ‘green-washing’ or ‘placebo’ strategies. Thus, further investigations are required to examine their sustainability in architecture.1

Most research on the influence of green spaces on human health has examined the presence, size, accessibility, or proximity parameters. While these are important indicators for urban health planning, they do not clearly illustrate the effects of ecological characteristics of greenspace on physical and mental health. Other factors, such as the variety of species, genetic variation within them, and the variety of ecosystems, remain largely unexplored.2

The benefits of enhanced biodiversity in the cities need careful assessment against the potential risks such as transmission of zoonotic and vector-borne diseases. With increasing incidences of zoonotic diseases, cities inhabited by animals alongside people can be hotspots for future disease emergence.2

Future Prospects

Overall, biophilic constructions offer opportunities to mitigate the effects of climate change on the environment and human health.2 Thus, such designs are being employed in different settings. For instance, a recent study in Building and Environment examined the potential risks and benefits of incorporating biophilic design in healthcare facilities.3

The physical or visual access to indoor plants in healthcare facilities improves non-light visual comfort and air quality. This reduces emotional stress/anxiety and enhances the general health, subjective well-being, and cognitive performance of patients. However, the risks of poor indoor air quality due to pathogenic fungal/bacterial elements released from potting soils cannot be neglected.3

Another recent study in Kybernetes investigated employee performance and well-being in a workplace with a biophilic design by developing a research instrument. It included 160 employees of an organization, and the digitally acquired data was analyzed using both descriptive and inferential statistics. The results demonstrated that a biophilic workplace can promote a positive atmosphere for the health and performance of employees. Additionally, it creates a positive social environment that encourages collaboration and communication, ultimately improving employee retention and satisfaction for the organization.4

In conclusion, biophilic design is a promising strategy to ensure sustainable construction and human well-being. Thorough scientific evaluation and quantification can substantiate biophilic designs for large-scale application in the real world.

References and Further Reading

1. Zhong, W., Schröder, T., & Bekkering, J. (2021). Biophilic design in architecture and its contributions to health, well-being, and sustainability: A critical review. Frontiers of Architectural Research11(1), 114-141. DOI: 10.1016/j.foar.2021.07.006

2. Milliken, S., Kotzen, B., Walimbe, S., Coutts, C., & Beatley, T. (2023). Biophilic cities and health. Cities & Health7(2), 175-188. DOI: 10.1080/23748834.2023.2176200

3. Moslehian, A. S., Roös, P. B., Gaekwad, J. S., & Galen, L. V. (2023). Potential risks and beneficial impacts of using indoor plants in the biophilic design of healthcare facilities: A scoping review. Building and Environment233, 110057. DOI: 10.1016/j.buildenv.2023.110057

4. Alipour, L. & Khoramian, M. (2023). Investigating the impact of biophilic design on employee performance and well-being by designing a research instrument. Kybernetes. DOI: 10.1108/k-08-2022-1134

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Nidhi Dhull

Written by

Nidhi Dhull

Nidhi Dhull is a freelance scientific writer, editor, and reviewer with a PhD in Physics. Nidhi has an extensive research experience in material sciences. Her research has been mainly focused on biosensing applications of thin films. During her Ph.D., she developed a noninvasive immunosensor for cortisol hormone and a paper-based biosensor for E. coli bacteria. Her works have been published in reputed journals of publishers like Elsevier and Taylor & Francis. She has also made a significant contribution to some pending patents.  


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